Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Afghanistan war: An Afghan man rides his bicycle past the International Assistance Mission (IAM) in Kabul August 7. The Taliban is proposing a joint commission to investigate civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan war: What the Taliban is doing about its image problem

The Taliban is proposing a joint commission to investigate civilian casualties, revealing that the militants are increasingly concerned about their image in the Afghanistan war.

The Taliban is proposing a joint commission to investigate civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The move reveals that the militants are growing more concerned about their image in a war where the population’s loyalty is hotly contested.

The committee would include representatives from the Taliban, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the United Nations, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

“The stated committee should be given a free hand to survey the affected areas as well as people in order to collect precise information,” reads a statement posted Sunday on a Taliban website.

Human rights groups working in Afghanistan say that the Taliban’s offer should only be considered if they provide convincing security guarantees and accept international war laws. That would mean an end to the systematic killing of civilians, an unlikely change in behavior given the way the Taliban use assassinations to intimidate the population and stymie government.

“If the Taliban themselves see as part of the work of that commission that they really are hurting civilians then they might make efforts to reduce those attacks,” says Ahmad Nader Nadery, a commissioner of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kabul. “But what I don’t think they would do is accept international humanitarian laws because they are seeing systematic attacks on civilians.”

Mr. Nadery says that his commission has sought in the past to get assurances from the Taliban that they would respect the safety and independence of the commission’s work in the field. “We have never got that assurance from them,” he says.

Another group, Afghanistan Rights Monitor, emphasized similar concerns. They countered the Taliban offer with a 12-point list of demands. Topping the list: “genuine, concrete, and certifiable guarantees of safety.”

Years of kidnappings of reporters and the killings of neutral aid workers have built up deep distrust of the insurgents. Even if some of the attacks attributed to the Taliban – such as the recent massacre of 10 aid workers in Badakhshan Province – were not done on the orders of the insurgent leadership, low-level commanders acting on their own can be just as deadly.

The Taliban’s stoning Sunday of a couple accused of adultery in the town of Kunduz only adds to the implausibility of the movement acceding to international laws. The Taliban are not alone in using that punishment, however. In 2005, local religious leaders and a district commander sanctioned the stoning of a woman accused of adultery in Badakhshan.

Despite committing or claiming these recent atrocities, the Taliban offer for a commission expresses frustration with the changing media narrative around civilian casualties. The issue, the Taliban said in its statement, is being used as “propaganda by the Western media … in a partial, one-sided, and incorrect way, stunningly exempting the persistent offenders, those who have really been behind the civilian deaths in Afghanistan.”

Earlier this month the UN released a tally that found the insurgents were responsible for 72 percent of this year’s civilian deaths, and that coalition forces had significantly reduced civilian killings.

In the past, the Taliban benefited from media focus on the killing of civilians by international forces. That’s changed in the past two years as balance of blame shifted, says Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The Taliban’s offer of the commission, he says, “is a way to diffuse the discussion about civilian killings.”

The UN said it was studying the offer. ISAF spokesman General Josef Blotz said the committee was unnecessary as “there’s absolutely no reason to criticize UN human rights reports.”

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